Wednesday 2 February 2011

Minimal or Maximal

I have been having fun today. I have been rewriting, improving and cutting. Here are the first ten pages of Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit by P.G. Wodehouse, but I've altered them slightly. I've cut out the unnecessary verbiage and rewritten them in the style of Ernest Hemingway. It is, I think you'll agree, a great improvement. I've also retitled it.

A Farewell to the Old Man without Women 

Chapter One

I was in the bath. My Aunt had written asking me to meet some people called Trotter. I didn't want to go, but I would. It was business. 

I heard footsteps and sat up, alert. My valet was back. He told me that another letter had arrived by special courier asking me to invest a thousand pounds in a play. I refused. I had the money, and the play was written by my cousin. But I didn't care.

Here, on the other hand, is the first paragraph of L'Etranger by Camus, rewritten in the style of P.G. Wodehouse. I've also retitled it.

Hang It All!

Chapter One

Usually, you know, I like to begin these memoirs of mine with something cheery. A good book, in my opinion, should brighten up the world, put a spring in the reader's step and a merry song on his lips. Some fellows love to be sombre and I suppose that they've got a right to it. There are those who don't consider a book worth reading unless they're sobbing their eyes out by the end of the first page. I've never understood that line myself and have always tried to start with something to rouse the sagging spirit and bend the corners of the mouth in an upward direction; but today I really can't. You see, I've had a bit of a blow. Today my dear old mother, the lady to whose tender dandling I owe my all, has kicked the proverbial bucket. 

I mean, I say today, but it could have been yesterday. All I got was a bare and bleak telegram with one sentence on it. Wallop! Well, you can imagine that I didn't take it too well. Really, these telegram chaps have all the compassion of an angry tigress. You'd think, wouldn't you, that when you're telling a fellow news like that you would at least give the chap some warning? Blows should be softened and pills sugared. They could begin:

Dear Meursault, Poor yourself a triple snifter and sit down somewhere where you won't fall off, we've got some dark and drearies to impart.

Then they could slip in some stuff about splendid innings and God gathering up his sunbeams and I wouldn't be sitting here foisting all this unpleasantness on you like a whining willow. 

I suppose I ought to catch the bus to Marengo.

Why have I been making these improvements? Well, it's all to do with George Orwell.

You see, I used to have a link up on the right of the blog to Orwell's essay Politics and the English Language. It's one of the classic essays on English prose and its general drift is that the words you use tend to fuddle your thoughts and those of the reader. Therefore, says Orwell, you ought to prune, prune, prune until you are left with the bare minimum needed to convey meaning.

Anyway, a few weeks ago I noticed that there were far too many links up on the right and it was all getting rather cluttered. I had to take something down. I looked at the links and felt rather like the chap operating the lifeboat concession on the Titanic. But in the end I decided that Orwell could go. He'd had his spot for ages and it was time to make way for new blood etc etc.

Then, last week, I posted a link to an article on prose that suggested the exact opposite. This other article had the idea that you should use as many words as you possibly could.

It has been pointed out that this seems to be an inconsistency. I post one link and then I post another and you dear reader are left dizzy and disappointed by my traitorous tergiversations.

Whose side am I on? Minimalist or maximalist? Am I a prosaic and prosodic Vicar of Bray? Do I have no loyalty, no constancy, no honour?

Well, the truth is that I'm not on either side. I just thought that both arguments were interesting and carefully thought out. Being well dressed for a funeral is quite a different thing to being well dressed for the beach. The occasion is all and you're going to look a bit silly emerging from the sea in a black suit and tie or weeping over the coffin in your speedoes and flip-flops. It's the same with prose. Prose has a place and purpose and though I thought that I was improving Wodehouse and Camus, helping them out of their stylistic rut, sometimes I'm not so sure.

Horses for courses, dear reader, and each to his own.


  1. Speaking as one who has been known to talk constantly, maximum or minimum is down to, as you say, being relevantly dressed for the event. From a personal point of view, it is one thing to be garrulous, quite another to talk constantly on interesting facts and findings. Being a constant jabber, I try and keep my audience captivated, instead of filling their ears with just any old gossip.

    But I have found that being interesting in conversation and being garrulous both require some amount of talent if you are not just going to be spewing out random words.

  2. I don't think Orwell explains his reasoning for using as few words as possible as well as you just did. And if he hates the passive so much (something he gives no explanation for) then why does his essay contain at least 47 passive clauses?